Hamas authorities in the Gaza Strip prevented a group of 37 children and their adult chaperones from entering Israel on what would have been a rare goodwill visit meant to foster peace in the region.
The New York Times reported that the bus carrying the group was forced to turn back at the Erez border crossing, a major checkpoint at the northern end of the Gaza Strip. Hamas spokesman Eyad Bozum told reporters that that the decision was made "to protect the culture of our children and our people" from what he described as "[normalizing] our children with the Zionist occupation." He said Hamas would make sure such a trip "will never happen again."
The children, most of whom have lost at least one parent in fighting between Israel and Hamas were to enter Israel on Sunday and spend a week visiting Jewish and Arab communities and a zoo. They were also going to travel to the West Bank for a meeting with the Palestinian president. Bozum said the children were all between 13 and 16 years old and were to be accompanied by five adults from Gaza.
The two sides fought a 50-day war this summer that caused heavy damage in the coastal enclave. According to the United Nations, the fighting killed more than 2,100 Palestinians, though it is not clear how many of those were civilians. On the Israeli side, the fighting killed 72 people, the vast majority of them soldiers, while rocket attacks disrupted the lives of millions of people.
Yoel Marshak, an Israeli organizer and activist, told the Associated Press that the visit was meant to a show a positive side of Israel and promote peace.
"These children will one day be the leaders of Gaza and they would have remembered this trip and known that we can live in peace, side by side," he said.
Marshak told the Times that a similar trip took place after a conflict between Israeli and Hamas in 2009. On that occasion, Hamas prevented the group from crossing the border twice, but later acquiesced. He said he received written approval for the trip three weeks ago from Hamas and that the cancellation came as a surprise. He said he and other organizers were working to reorganize the trip.
Said Abu Luli, a 13-year-old Palestinian boy whose father was killed in an electrical accident in 2009, said he was disappointed he could not make the trip.
"I was very happy that I will go and was saddened when we were prevented," he said in a telephone interview. "I was hoping to visit the places in the West Bank and our lands in Palestine," he added.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.